Last year I read some tea leaves, seeking to accurately predict our performance for the 2011-2 season. Here’s how that turned out:
Pre-season prediction: 8-4
Mid-season prediction: 9-3
What really happened: 10-2
To put it mildly, we beat most rational expectations last year, including mine. Then we beat them again, winning the Sugar Bowl against a pretty darned good Virginia Tech team. It was glorious, and appeared to signal Michigan’s return to its rightful place among the college football elite.
Now we get to find out how sustainable all that was. On the plus side, we have D-Lithium and a whole mess ‘o returning starters from a team that finished the season with the #26 scoring offense and the #6 scoring defense, plus a bona fide elite coaching staff! On the other hand, our 2012-3 squad faces a more daunting schedule, the loss of Denard’s security blanket “Junior” and the prospect of life after Mike Martin, while possessing only razor thin depth at key positions and being burdened by something we didn’t have this time last year: expectations.
So how’s it going to turn out? Good question, and not one you can really answer. Okay, sure, we can say it’s bloody unlikely that we’ll go 5-7, but are we going to be 8-4 or 10-2? That 2-win range hinges as much on unpredictable things like injuries, fumbles and ball bounces as it does on returning starters of the strength of coaching. Because of this, as I did last year, I’m going to provide you with a series of scenarios for the regular season, and then evaluate their likelihood in terms of probability. Oh, and I hope you like Star Wars…
1. The Empire Strikes Back
Scenario: We are awesome, and by awesome, I mean flat out, Darth-Vader-kicking-everyone’s-ass awesome. Denard is the Heisman favorite, Will Campbell has morphed into an NFL first rounder, everyone shows significant improvement over last year and nobody really important gets injured ever. We show those pesky rebels who's boss.
Record: 12-0. We shock the country by beating defending champions Alabama, step on Notre Dame in South Bend and then run the table in conference play. Wisconsin melts in fear of the maize and blue juggernaut, and we go on to face the SEC team du jour in the national championship game.
Probability: (p = .01). Over the course of the offseason, I’ve flirted with this scenario, and found myself increasingly able to make convincing arguments as to its feasibility. The main stumbling block is Alabama, but the more I looked at it, the more it seemed as if we had a "Buster Douglas sized chance" to win that one. The logic went something like this: PSU was able to hang with 2011-2 Alabama for 3 quarters + the fact that our 2012-3 team should be a lot better than 2011-2 PSU + the fact that 2012-3 Alabama has lost 8 starters on defense, including most of its star players + the game will be played at the beginning of the season, when teams are rusty and we might be able to get away with stuff a team that plays them in week 10 wouldn’t be = a real, if still remote, chance. Then the news broke out Fitz’s suspension and I did away with such nonsense. See, our offense really needs a credible counter threat out of the shotgun, so defenses—and particularly the fast aggressive ones—can’t just key in on Denard. Vincent Smith is worth 3-4 good plays a game, but isn’t an every-down threat out of the zone-read, and the undoubtedly talented Rawls and Hayes are still green and untested (which often translates into “fumble-prone”). Fitz is the key to moving to ball on Alabama with the consistency we’ll need, and if he’s absent, or rusty, we’re going to have problems. I hate to say it, but that "Buster Douglas sized chance" is looking more and more like it's of the "vs. Evander Holyfield" variety. I just don’t see us winning this one; and even if we do, we still have a whole mess of challenging games that follow.
2. A New Hope
Scenario: We are only marginally less awesome than in scenario #1 in the sense that we can beat pretty much anyone other than really big dogs like Alabama and USC. Denard is still a leading Heisman candidate and Will Campbell is still a stud on the D-line. Life is generally awesome. We don't need a targeting computer to blow up the Death Star.
Record: 11-1. We face a setback in the beginning, but learn from it and emerge stronger for the experience. We win the Leaders division and put that smarmy little brat from East Lansing back in his place. And then beat Ohio for the second year in a row. We make it to the Big 10 championship game, and are favored to win. A BCS game looms.
Probability: (p = .19). Hey, this could really happen! Alabama may be a tough mountain to climb, but I challenge you to find a single other game on our schedule we can’t win. Sure, beating ND in South Bend is going to be tough, but there’s no more Michael Floyd, and imagine how the last two games would have played out had he been somewhere else. Sure, we haven’t beaten either Michigan State or Iowa since 2007, but we’re at home for both and Iowa, at least, looks very beatable. And Sparty comes to town minus Missouri-hating Jerel Worthy and Nth year senior Kork Coupons, both of whom have given us fits over the years. I’m bullish on that one, and on Nebraska too. That leaves the great unknown of playing sanctioned Ohio at Ohio. You can’t ever count on that one, but I do expect there to be some growing pains associated with the transition to the Urban Meyer way, and think a win there is certainly possible, and maybe probable. The trick, of course, is doing each and every one of these things. As with the first scenario, this one relies on a lot of things going our way, including the unpredictable turnover margin and injuries. So yeah, also unlikely, but plausible at least…something that would have been unthinkable a year ago.
3. Return of the Jedi
Scenario: Our team may rack the same record as we did in 2011-2, but we are better. Why? Because our schedule is harder, that’s why. It’s considered the 4th hardest in the country, in fact. If we get to 10-2 again, it will be an accomplishment.
Record: 10-2. We drop Alabama and one road game—probably ND, but possibly also Nebraska or Ohio. That least one would hurt, as would ending the streak against ND, but you can’t win ‘em all, especially on the road in a hostile environment, and we’re going to be on the road in hostile environments a lot. This should still be good enough to make the Big 10 championship game and a BCS bowl.
Probability: (p = .29). This is, in my opinion, the second-most likely scenario. It’s what we should get on paper, given the vast number of returning starters + the fact that our offense and defense will be in the second year with the coaching staff – the harder schedule. So why only the second most likely scenario? Because, and I feel like a broken record here, that schedule is really daunting. When was the last time we beat ND in South Bend twice in three years or fewer? I’ll tell you when: 1888. History can be temporarily remade, as evidenced by Sparty’s current 4-game win streak against us, but this factoid should illustrate how hard it is to win consistently in South Bend.
4. Revenge of the Sith
Scenario: In the last of the “I’m at least okay with this” scenarios, our team is still good, but we feel the loss of Martin and Hemingway, and Denard still throws a couple ducks up for grabs at inopportune moments. Things are mostly like they were last year; only the tougher schedule and issues on the D-line shave one win off the record for us. But hey...at least we get to nerd rage on the Padawans, right?
Record: 9-3. Alabama is a loss, as is ND, and likely one of Nebraska/Ohio, though MSU comes into play here as well. One of our losses, at least, is close and painful. Still, our team is good and we can hold our heads up high. We are still in the mix for the Big 10 championship, depending on whether we have 1 or 2 losses in conference play, and depending on how Sparty does.
Probability: (p = .31). This scenario, I hate to say, seems like the most likely one to me. Only by a sliver, mind you, but the more I look at the schedule, the more I think we lean on the wrong side of the 2/3-loss fence. It’s just hard to make it through a schedule like ours without some unforeseen adversity, and sure are a lot of chances for adversity. I see five potentially “losable” games on our schedule (Alabama, ND, MSU, Nebraska and Ohio), and only one of those is at home. A 2-3 record among those strikes me what you’d expect from a team that’s got a lot of dazzle and a lot of skill, but some serious question marks in the trenches.
5. Attack of the Clones
Scenario: A disappointing year where we don’t see enough improvement from Denard in terms of interceptions and/or the D-line and/or those things are fine but someone really important gets injured. There are, however, some redeeming factors. Like Natalie Portman and kid Boba Fett.
Record: 8-4. Losses to Alabama and ND, plus 2 out of 3 among MSU/Nebraska/Ohio.
Probability: (p = .19) Is this possible? Yes. With a likely downgrade of performance on the D-line, we might have some problems with the smashmouthy, max-protect MANBALL + occasional play-action offenses that proliferate in our conference. Without much depth on the O-line and at other key positions, we are an injury away from experiencing Molk-in-2009 2.0. On the other hand, is this probable? No. It’s not. We are returning so many starters that I have a hard time seeing us lose this many games. Plus, second year of system, etc.
6. The Phantom Menace
Scenario: Epic FAIL of Jar-Jar-esque proportions.
Record: 7-5. We lose all the losable games, and go 0-3 versus our rivals.
Probability: (p = .01). I see this being as likely as us running the table. As in, not very. Our coaches are just too good for this, considering how in 2011-2 they molded a previously embarrassing defense featuring only one legitimate star into the #6 scoring defense. We have good defensive backs now. We have good linebackers now. And we have two of the best defensive coaches in the NCAA as our HC and DC. On the flipside, we have an offense that can be explosive, and really shouldn’t make as many mistakes now that it’s in the second year of Al Borges system. While a 4-loss season isn’t implausible, I think—considering all that—a 5-loss season really isn’t plausible at all.
Things really should be good this season, and by "good" I mean that we should perform well enough to not have more than 3 losses. And I'd argue that with this schedule, a 3-loss season is the equivalent to last year's 2-losser, and anything above that is an improvement. According to my prognosticatin', we have an 80% chance of reaching that level, and a 49% chance of improving on it.
This, of course, is an assessment made solely on the paper merits of our squad, their performance in the Spring Game, rumors coming out of practice and some educated guessery. Take that with a grain of salt, as you should any and all predictions. But if I were a betting man, I'd put the chips down on a 2 or 3 loss season. I hope I'm wrong, we go all Darth-Vader-on-Hoth and end up looking like 2010-1 Auburn minus the alleged sketchiness. Hoke springs eternal, and all that...